July 20, 2024



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On Friday 17th January Sir John passed away after a short illness.

If you read my blogs you know I have never written this about anyone: Sir John was a great man.

This is a personal tribute so much of what I write is about how he inspired me to work for the important things in school. He also easily persuaded me to do research, presentations and articles. I would walk away from his gentle requests determined to do my best, only once refusing his offer of an opportunity to write a song and perform it to 2000 teachers. Sir John had looked up my name and found an American folk singer.

I very nearly said yes.

I am not a biographer but his career included around 20 years as head of a school that sounds like a Northumberland version of Chauncy. He was awarded a knighthood for services to education and was a massive part of London Challenge. He worked with dozens of schools helping them improve London children’s achievements and opportunities to such an extent that London boroughs went from the bottom of national tables to the top. Of course, he was not alone – this was a highly effective group of realistic, experienced, non-political school leaders – but he was himself working with 55 schools in 2008.

Sir John unashamedly focused on ordinary kids doing well in our schools and he walked away from a government which perhaps differed from the focus of London Challenge. He set up PiXL (Partners in Excellence) with the 55 schools mentioned above. He has left an incredibly influential organisation with around 3,000 schools attending cram-packed, inexpensive, inspirational, practical conferences and on-line curriculum resources of stunning quality and relevance.

It was easy to like, admire and respect Sir John. I was also fortunate to watch Sir John rally and brief the PiXL leaders before the start of a national conference and there was no doubt what he wanted, what the expectations were of the day and of every presenter and organiser. He would then address conference explaining our mission and his views on how we could all make schools a better place for children and staff.

He worried the Department for Education when PiXL helped us all be more effective in targeting support for children taking public exams, giving ordinary children in ordinary schools the access to well directed support without the need for families to employ private tutors.

The work we all did for and with Sir John probably helped 50 Chauncy students pass their GCSEs. PiXL have around 1500 secondary schools. Those thousands of students every year for a decade went to college and university and got better jobs. The work we all did under his leadership changed lives.

That’s some legacy.

The TES interviewed him asking, “Is this the most influential man in UK schools?”

Sir John was a charming man and patient. He gently rejected my calls for mass demonstrations in Westminster. Mind you, he was outraged by a senior government education minister, still in post, who explained to Sir John that all schools needed to improve children’s literacy is to have all children read the works of Jane Austin, repeatedly.

In recent years Sir John moved PiXL towards wider issues in education. Most recently he has talked passionately about “Character” and the missing third – the 35% of students who fail in our schools. He leaves us the task of providing genuine equality of opportunity for all our students.

Sir John read my blogs and even though he may have disagreed with my approach he was always the very first to write to me. His last response on 12th December included his last instruction to me: “…people like you will press on!”

I bet he wrote to everyone. He always remembered our names and greeted us as friends.

His Christmas message to PiXL members hoped for 2020 to be a time of,

“Hope for a sensible approach to the improving of education for all our students? Hope that we might escape the over-emphasis on measures and judgement and move into a new world of inspiration, creativity, excitement and deep and wide learning about subjects and personal development and character.”

I think Sir John may have believed in heaven. God would be well advised to prepare for improvements in that area, maybe ensuring more of us pass the entrance test.

Dennis O’Sullivan

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